Vanilla in Florida? Yes!
The world's most popular flavor is also one of the most expensive. Second only to saffron, vanilla is the most valuable edible on Earth. In fact, real vanilla is so pricey that synthetic vanillin is more common. Today, most of the vanilla in grocery stores is lab created. Less than 1% of vanilla offered comes from the original source: the vanilla orchid.
The Vanilla Orchid
Vanilla planifolia is the plant responsible for natural vanilla flavor. These vanilla orchids grow as vines in south Florida, USDA Hardiness zones 10a to 11a. They are found climbing up host trees and flowering in the branches. The leaves are oval shaped, bright green, and range in length from 3 to 24 inches. The bell-shaped blooms come in white, yellow, or pink.
Botanically, vanilla is considered "semi-epiphytic." This means gardeners can plant it in the ground or grow it as an epiphyte, an air plant. The vine is perennial and can reach a length of over 200 feet. Natural vanilla extract comes from the seed pods of the orchid. These pods are the "vanilla beans."
Vanilla is native to the Americas, but today the source of this familiar flavor is exotic. Mesoamerican peoples in modern-day Mexico were the first to harvest vanilla. European explorers learned of it by the early 16th century. It became so popular in Europe that merchants tried to grow it in greenhouses. Production soon spread to European colonies in Africa and Asia.
Today, Madagascar and Indonesia produce most of our planet's vanilla. There, growers cut, cure, and ship the beans around the world. The cost of shipping is part of what makes this edible so expensive. Theft and waste also reduce the amount available. Some vanilla is grown in Hawaii and Puerto Rico but moving production to the continental US would lower the price and make the supply more sustainable.
Good news for Florida growers: Vanilla production may be coming home soon! The UF/IFAS Tropical Research and Education Center (TREC) has begun working with vanilla. Dr. Alan Chambers and his TREC team are trialing multiple species. Their goal is to provide Florida growers with varieties designed for large-scale production.
This does not mean that vanilla must be left to the pros, however. South Florida's hot and humid weather is perfect for orchids. And though most vanilla is grown overseas, Florida's swamps are home to four native species: V. barbellata, V. dilloniana, V. phaeantha, and V. mexicana. Unfortunately, these species are all endangered. This makes it illegal to gather them from the wild. So how do we add these orchids to our home garden?
Vanilla in Your Home Garden
The best way to bring vanilla home is to buy a potted plant or cutting of V. planifolia. Large cuttings (24 to 36 inches) can root and flower in just 2 to 3 years. Smaller cuttings will take longer, likely 3 to 4 years. In general, vanilla begins to flower when the vine diameter reaches 0.25 to 0.5 inches.
Plant the vines at the base of some support structure. They prefer areas with good air flow and bright, mottled shade. A garden tree or shaded trellis will work well. Once rooted, these lovely orchids require little. In the home garden they do not require frequent watering, pruning, or fertilizing.
Vanilla orchid flowers are large and fragrant. Each flower lasts for only one day but V. planifolia will go on flowering for about 2 months. Some species can flower for even longer periods of time. And once flowering is over, the plant begins producing its famous fruits: vanilla beans.
Vanilla bean production is certainly not for the impatient. Once the plants flower, they must be hand pollinated. Successfully pollinated flowers will produce a bean that takes about 9 months to mature. The four-step curing process takes another few months. It is a long process but for the dedicated gardener it can be a rewarding one.
DIY Vanilla Extract
According to Dr. Chambers, "It doesn't take much effort to produce your own vanilla beans, and soon you'll be baking with natural vanilla extract from your own garden. Otherwise, we hope to see home-grown vanilla available in just a few years."
And don't let the wait for home-grown vanilla deter you from making your own extract, today. Making vanilla extract from store-bought vanilla beans is actually very simple. You will also need a dark glass bottle and enough standard-proof vodka to fill it.
Cut the beans open lengthwise (and into smaller pieces if necessary) and add them to your bottle. Next, fill the bottle to the top with vodka. Store the bottle in a dark cabinet, shaking it a couple times a week. In about two months you will have homemade vanilla extract. Keep this in the dark to preserve the flavor for as long as possible.
For more information on growing vanilla, see the links below or contact your county Extension office.
- Orchid Pollination Biology
- UF/IFAS Scientists Generating Recipe for Growing Vanilla in South Florida
- Vanilla Cultivation in Sothern Florida